A 'Taste of Southern Cooking', 30 Years Later

Scott Peacock and the late Edna Lewis

Scott Peacock and the late Edna Lewis Knopf hide caption

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Scott Peacock, executive chef at Watershed Restaurant and author of The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from two Southern Chefs, commemorates the 30th anniversary of the late Edna Lewis' southern cooking classic, Taste of Country Cooking.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Edna Lewis wrote The Taste of Country Cooking 30 years ago to preserve the rich flavors of her childhood, but also to celebrate the place she came from, Freetown, Virginia. Former slaves, including her grandfather, bought the land and founded a vibrant farming community whose rhythms revolved around the crops they planted, harvested and transformed into dishes like green peas in cream, ham biscuits and fresh peach cobbler with nutmeg sauce.

For a time, Edna Lewis lived in New York City where she was the chef at Café Nicholson and later at Gage and Tollner. But she never strayed far from her Southern heritage and, over time, moved Southern cooking onto the nation's front burner.

Edna Lewis died earlier this year, but her classic cookbook turns 30 years old and has just been re-issued. Joining us now to tell us more about the legacy of Edna Lewis is Scott Peacock, her long-time friend and collaborator, the executive chef at the Watershed Restaurant in Atlanta, who's with us from the studios of Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. Nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. SCOTT PEACOCK (Executive Chef, Watershed Restaurant, Atlanta): Great to be here, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Southern cooking requires time to prepare, to cook, and to enjoy the food. When this book was first published back in 1976, the cooking industry was pushing TV dinners and fast food. I wonder how this book was first received.

Mr. PEACOCK: I think it was received very well. I was in grade school at the time, so I can't give a first-hand account. But I think it was recognized by some people as what it is; it's just - it's a terrific (unintelligible) and really an instruction guide back to a better way of life.

CONAN: Well, she wrote this cookbook as if she was telling a story, and every meal seemed to come with an event attached to it.

Mr. PEACOCK: Yes. The menus are beautiful. They're, you know, lunch at wheat-threshing time and even certain things like hog-killing time which you would not think as being so wonderful, but when she describes it it's very, very poetic. And she talks about Sunday revival dinner and mid-summer's Sunday breakfast. Everything does paint a picture of life from her childhood. And it's really written from the perspective of an adult looking back on a childhood, which I think was a remarkable thing about her, that she was very, very wise, and there was nothing naïve or unsophisticated about her. She lived most of her life in New York and she didn't mess around, but she always held on to a certain innocence.

And there was a child-like wonder about the world and about cooking and food and people and nature in particular that always came through that - I don't know how she held on to that, but she did. And I think it was one of the most remarkable things about her was that girlish quality that she had.

CONAN: We're speaking with Scott Peacock about his friend, Edna Lewis. A 30th anniversary commemorative edition of The Taste of Country Cooking has just been issued, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I wanted to illustrate what you were just talking about. I wanted to read a bit of this, if you wouldn't mind.

Breakfast was about the best part of the day. There was an almost mysterious feeling about passing through the night and awakening to a new day. Everyone greeted each other in the morning with a gladness and a real sense of gratefulness to see the new day. It was as if a particularly beautiful morning; it was expressed in the grace. Spring would bring our first and just about only fish, shad.

It would always be served for breakfast. Soaked in saltwater for an hour or so, rolled in seasoned cornmeal and fried carefully in home-rendered lard with a slice of smoked shoulder for added flavor. There were crispy fried white potatoes, fried onions, batter bread, any food left over from supper, blackberry jelly, delicious hot coffee, and cocoa for the children. And perhaps, if a neighbor dropped in, dandelion wine was added. With the morning feeding of the animals out of the way, breakfast was enjoyable and leisurely.

Boy, I didn't have lunch all that long ago. I'm starving to death.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEACOCK: It makes breakfast sound pretty good.

CONAN: It sure does. You and she produced together this cookbook, and you worked with her on recipes. I know there was another description. Alice Waters in the foreword describes an event, coming out for the Meals on Wheels cook-off; really a lot of celebrity chefs would come out and some of them would set up - she describes these assembly lines, some with prepared food. She describes you and Edna Lewis making pies one at a time by hand.

Mr. PEACOCK: Yes, that's right. And that's actually how we met, at an event similar to that in Atlanta. And, you know, Ms. Lewis knew exactly who she was and exactly what she did and nothing ever swayed her from that. And so other people would come in with their fancy brigades of cooks and equipment and lots of things pre-made at other restaurants, but for her it was all about the cooking and it was about the experience and really giving your very best.

I can remember some of those mornings we would - I would go in and pick her up at her apartment in New York around 6:00 in the morning, and we would go and have coffee for half an hour or so before we would begin to cook. And we would have cooked the whole day before, usually making some preparations for this, and she was tireless.

And the satisfaction - she enjoyed seeing people enjoy it and of course compliment her on the food, but it was just the process too and I think doing something the very best that she could do.

CONAN: We've posted some of the recipes from the book at our Web site. If you'd like to take a look at a couple recipes for steamed chicken and blueberry cake are at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

I wonder, do you think she liked cooking best for herself and friends or in a restaurant?

Mr. PEACOCK: You know, that's a difficult question. I think she took satisfaction in it regardless, and I think she enjoyed having the platform because she believed so much in what she was doing. So I think she was, you know, grateful to have the opportunity to share her vision of food and her taste of cooking with the public. But I think she took just as much joy in boiling a pot of coffee in the morning as she did doing one of those great dinners at Rockefeller Center, or anywhere for that matter.

CONAN: What do you think her legacy is?

Mr. PEACOCK: Oh, I think it's many things to many people, but I think it's - there's such a purity in her approach to cooking and also that reflects into life and just the values that she held were - came through in everything she did. But I think she was among the early ones.

I mean, Alice Waters is wonderful about saying that. I mean, she came before Alice and really helped to pave the way for this approach to food that it's healthy and wholesome and there's an immediacy with the seasons. And I think anyone who appreciates good cooking in general owes a debt of gratitude to Edna Lewis.

CONAN: There's that maxim mentioned in this book. What grows together goes together.

Mr. PEACOCK: Yes.

CONAN: There's some wonderful meals in here. Did you get a chance to enjoy a lot of them yourself?

Mr. PEACOCK: Oh, absolutely. I was very grateful - I mean, very fortunate. I'm very grateful to have been so fortunate. We were friends for almost 17 years, and the last 7 years we lived together. And I was thinking on the drive to the station today just remembering summers with her perched on a riverbank sort of coaching me on the best way to harvest watercress and watching her peel tomatoes. And we would put up brandied peaches together and of course, you know, hand-churning ice cream together.

Yes, I was very, very fortunate. Her cooking was remarkable that the recipes, as wonderful as they are, don't quite do it justice.

CONAN: Scott Peacock, thanks very much, and thank you for sharing your recollections of your friend and collaborator.

Mr. PEACOCK: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Scott Peacock is executive chef of Watershed Restaurant in Atlanta, a long-time friend and collaborator the late chef Edna Lewis. Her classic cookbook, A Taste of Country Cooking, has been re-issued this year. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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'Taste of Country Cooking' Recipes: Steamed Chicken, Blueberry Cake

Steamed Chicken in Casserole

This recipe can be quickly made and cooked without too much watching. Serves 4 to 5.

1 2 1/2 pound chicken with a few extra wings

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

2 medium-sized onions, chopped fine

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup sliced carrots

1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon

Salt and pepper

Have the chicken cut into 8 pieces. Wash off and dry with a clean cloth. Into a heavy pot or saucepan put the butter and heat to the foaming stage. Add the onions. When the onions are quite heated through, add in the chicken. Raise the flame and brown the chicken and onions well, without burning. When the chicken is well browned, turn the burner as low as possible, add the thyme, bay leaf and carrots, cover with a closely fitting lid, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Stir by shaking the pot around. The pot can be set into a preheated 250 degree oven. Be sure it's quite hot when set into the oven. Cook for 45 minutes. If you have fresh tarragon add 1/2 tablespoon about 15 minutes before removing from the oven, then salt and pepper to taste, and swish pot around to blend in the herb. Adding the tarragon at the last gives a better flavor than if it is cooked in from the beginning. Don't use dried tarragon; it's too strong. The chicken wings can be removed if you like; they are added really to give thickness to the sauce, which comes from the two last wing joints.

Blueberry Cake with Blueberry Sauce

Blueberry cake was a surprisingly good, quick dessert made at the last minute. When canning, there was always some leftover fruit that was not enough to fill a jar and it was usually used for the next meal to make a pudding, pie, plain compote, or blueberry cake. Serves 4 to 5 (with leftovers).

2 cups sifted unbleached flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter

1 egg

1 cup of milk

2 teaspoons vanilla

3 teaspoons Royal baking Powder

1 1/2 cups stewed blueberries

1/3 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 8x8x2-inch buttered baking pan

Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Add the butter and blend with fingertips or, even better, with a pastry blender until the mixture becomes grainy, fine, and a bit more coarse than cornmeal. Beat the eggs, and mix in the milk, then add the dough, stirring all the while. Add the vanilla and continue stirring, then last, add the baking powder. Mix well and spoon into a well-buttered baking pan. Drain the blueberries and quickly scatter them over the dough. Combine the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over the top. Set the cake into a preheated 425 degree oven. Close the door and turn the oven down to 375 degrees. Cook for 25 to 28 minutes.

Note: Draining the juice from the berries is to keep the cake from becoming too soggy while cooking. If using fresh berries, stew them for 3 to 4 minutes before putting on the dough. Drain away the juice and make into a sauce by boiling the juice, adding sugar to taste, and a teaspoon of cornstarch dissolved in cold water.

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